ATLANTA – Sarah Hamilton’s January arrest based on a mistaken identity has kept the whole family in turmoil even after police dropped the charges against the 26-year-old former honor graduate, her father told a hushed Senate hearing Tuesday.
“The system carelessly wronged a private citizen, my daughter Sarah. Is it not the government’s moral obligation to correct it?” asked John Hamilton, chairman of the health-textile company Compass Group of McDonough.
The story he recounted provided a dramatic climax to a morning-long hearing of a special Senate committee studying the issue of expungement reform, the removal of criminal records. Experts say Georgia – which has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates – is among the toughest on young people trying to find jobs after getting a criminal record, even when charges are dropped.
John Hamilton said he expects it will take many more months to have her record clean, running the risk that her reputation and career could be damaged in the meantime by anyone looking at government records on the internet.
“Sarah doesn’t deserve this treatment,” he said, noting that a cab driver mistook her for another woman in her apartment complex who was too drunk to pay the fare.
Thomas Weaver of Canton also testified that his career had been harmed because he was convicted of carrying a gun in a public park just months before the legislature changed the law to make it permissible.
“I have to continue to tell employers that I have a firearms charge, and I’ve only found one employer that will hire me,” he said.
Existing law allows first offenders and those charged as juveniles to wipe their records clean two years after their sentence, but they have to request it. Many other states do it automatically. Correcting errors in the record is more cumbersome, according to witnesses.
A change taking effect this year is supposed to improve the process, but experts told the committee many problems still need to be addressed.
One challenge is the fact that arrest reports are public records available to anyone, including credit-reporting agencies and companies that publicize crime news. Those companies often keep outdated records online, according to Marissa Dodson, a staff attorney with the State Bar of Georgia’s Georgia Justice Project.
“It’s very difficult to unring that bell, and it’s devastating for people who are wrongly accused,” she said.
The committee has four more meetings scheduled before the General Assembly convenes Jan. 13. It is likely to take the testimony and consider drafting recommendations for revising the law, according to Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who chairs the study committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.